FORT MYERS, Fla. – Through the first part of a pitcher’s career — Little League, travel ball, high school — coaches often tell him to keep the ball down. Hitters are less likely to do damage when your pitches are down in the zone, the thinking goes, even if you don’t throw it well.
Major League Baseball has thrown out that logic in recent years — and the Twins have someone in their rotation who was at the forefront of this revolution.
Last month the Twins traded for Jake Odorizzi, who comes from a Rays staff that embraced throwing frequent high four-seam fastballs in an attempt to generate as many swings and misses as possible.
The Rays threw the third-most four-seam fastballs last season, according to MLB.com’s Statcast, with Odorizzi making his living up in the zone the past few seasons.
“It’s just something I’ve always been able to do, and I haven’t adopted that style, it’s just how I always pitched,” Odorizzi said last week.
But the Rays were the first team that didn’t try to change Odorizzi and get him to throw lower. The righthanded starter doesn’t have an especially fast four-seamer — it has averaged between 90.9 and 91.9 miles per hour since 2012 — but he found success from 2014 through 2016 by featuring it up in the zone.
The Rays encouraged this as hitters tried to gear their swings toward more solid contact on low pitches — a cat-and-mouse game with the Rays trying to stay ahead.
Odorizzi embraced this philosophy, and from 2014-16 he had a 3.72 ERA and a fielding-independent pitching mark of 3.91, a metric that calculates how a pitcher performs regardless of the defense behind him.
Odorizzi said it is important not to throw fastballs for the sake of throwing high fastballs.
“It’s the right timing, the effectiveness,” Odorizzi said. “You have to throw down in the zone to establish the strike zone. Off-speed, same thing. They play off each other. I’ve always been good at putting it in a good location where it looks pretty tantalizing, I guess you could say.”
Perhaps it was a little too tantalizing in 2017. Odorizzi had a 5.43 FIP and allowed a career-high 30 home runs in 143⅓ innings during an injury-filled 2017 season.
Perhaps being healthy will help him regain his form. But don’t expect him to change how he pitches.
“I was always told, ‘If one of the hitters’ strengths is what your strength is, you should always rely on your strength,’ ” Odorizzi said.
“If you’re getting beat, you’re getting beat with the best you can put out there. Sometimes it might not be their best day, even if they’re good at it. I think a lot of times pitchers overthink things and give too much credit [to hitters]. When in doubt, you always go with your strengths over a hitter’s weakness.”
That means expect a heavy dose of high fastballs whenever Odorizzi has the ball.